By Jenny Neyman
The hearts of the founders and volunteers of the fledgling The Underground organization are in the right place — with the youth, teens and young adults they seek to help in the central Kenai Peninsula community. But for the time being, the organization is as homeless as many of its target clients are.
A mere 13 months old and the organization already is bursting at the seams in its efforts to help youths and young adults in the area who lack a stable place to live and other basic necessities of life. The program operates two free clothing closets — one for kids in sixth grade and under and one for ages 13 to 22 — accepting donations from the community and distributing them to youth in need. It’s starting up a mentoring program to teach life skills — cooking, budgeting, anger management, resume writing and the like — for youth to transition into successful as adults. It’s adopted five families for Christmas to provide them not only with holiday decorations and a few presents, but the furniture, appliances, dishes and other household basics that they currently lack.
And all this is happening out of three homes and two storage units. There are piles of donated clothing sitting on living room chairs where family members otherwise would sit. Garbage bags holding more donations, which are awaiting sorting, tower in corners and fill up car trunks. Furniture edges vehicles out of garages and personal belongings out of storage units, all in a continual circuit of seeing a need and trying to meet it.
“Too many of us have too many things in our houses and storage facilities right now. We’ve given
everything we have to give and still keep us in our house,” said Shawn Schooley, co-founder, with his wife, Krista, of The Underground.
Not that organizers and volunteers are complaining. Losing use of their space is a small price to pay to help others who have no space of their own, much less anything to put in it. The Christmas families, for instance, aren’t a case of “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a sled.” More like Johnny wants running water, and Susie wants a roof over her head.
“We have one 19-year-old girl we’re helping who was homeless and just got into an apartment and took in her two brothers, 14 and 18. And she had nothing going into this apartment — no furniture, no working stove. She took on a second job just to be able to make ends meet, so no Christmas for her and her brothers,” Krista said.
Krista turned to Facebook, just as she had a week earlier to ask for donations to help another family that was going to have to skip Christmas.
“Two hundred people later this house is completely furnished. There’s a tree, decoration and presents, some wrapped for the kids, some given with wrapping paper so the parents can do it for their kids,” Krista said.
But in order to serve more people, to expand the organization’s programs and to really get The Underground off the ground requires the homelessness-focused organization to find a home of its own.
“We know the programs we want to get going but we have to have a way to get a facility to hold it. So we’re looking for commitments of people to help us,” said Tricey Katzenberger, a volunteer organizer.
For all the hard-working service organizations in the community, even helpers sometimes need help. Volunteers get overworked. Donors get strapped for resources. Food pantries aren’t open nights and weekends. Low-income housing has months-long waiting lists. Homeless shelters are filled to capacity. Social services offices can be spread out and require transportation to access.
In a larger sense, The Underground grew out of those needs, to be sort of a grass-roots safety net for those who fall through the larger, institutionalized safety nets, particularly for youths and young adults who lack the legal authority, resources and life skills to adequately provide for themselves.
Specifically, The Underground started with Krista and Shawn Schooley’s involvement in recent years at the Soldotna Skate Park. Shawn and their son, Jacob, both race BMX bikes, and the more time the family spent around the bike and skate park, the more Krista and Shawn started noticing there were kids at the park who were lacking some basic necessities. It’s one thing for teenagers to be out in cold weather without a coat because they didn’t feel like putting one on, or calling a bag of Cheetos dinner because they don’t like anything healthy. It’s another to not wear a coat because they don’t have one, or to skip meals because there’s nothing at home to eat, or because there is no home in which to eat it.
“We started meeting them and seeing the needs of some of them,” Shawn said.
They started The Tribe nonprofit organization, holding weekend cookouts at the skate park and collecting donations of food, clothes, backpacks, personal care items, etc., to distribute to youth in need. But they soon realized that putting a burger in a kid’s belly or a hat on their head was merely a Band-Aid on a larger problem.
“The more we start digging into that and seeing the needs on the peninsula, the more we wanted to start adding these different programs,” he said.
They formed The Underground a little over a year ago to do more outreach services, such as the clothes closets, a teen mentoring program and life skills classes, and a teen mother support group.
“The sky’s the limit for what we can do with this,” Shawn said.
“We’re grass roots, we’re just seeing what works, and if it doesn’t then we’ll go in a different direction,” Krista said.
So far the direction has been gathering donations and distributing them. Just that has become a time, gas and space-consuming endeavor for the Schooleys and others who have signed on to help.
Katzenberger got involved earlier this year.
“I donated two couches this summer to their garage sale and we talked in my driveway and I became the Soldotna drop-off location (for clothing donations),” she said.
Katzenberger works at Soldotna Montessori School and already has a bent toward volunteering.
“My mom has said I have been a mother since the day I was born. I’ve got six kids and a blended family and if I can help, I help in whatever way I can,” she said.
She already had begun a Bear Hugs outreach program, where she distributes backpacks with a blanket, stuffed animal, hat and gloves to kids in need.
“I brought the Bear Hugs program to (The Underground) and Krista said, ‘I don’t know, I want to stick with teens.’ And then a week later she said ‘Go,’ so I was off and running,” Katzenberger said.
“And now she’s my right hand,” Krista said.
Katzenberger comes at her involvement from two directions. One is to teach her own kids the value of helping others.
“I take the kids with me to meet the families and pick up donations and we sort donations together because it needs to start young and it’s important that they’re seeing they can make a difference, even if it’s one or two people they meet,” she said.
It also comes from working in the school district, and being aware of the tip of the iceberg that is homelessness among youth in the community.
“Unfortunately the only time I hear about how many homeless students we have in our school system is the first day (of the school year) in-service, and the numbers are shocking,” she said.
“I’d heard some of the statistics of homeless kids and I really didn’t know what was out there for them,” said Shannon Peterkin, who also works at Soldotna Montessori, and who attended a recent organizational meeting of The Underground. “I’m glad to come and see that there’s going to be some help.”
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District tracks homeless students in its Students in Transition program. As of Nov. 16, the district had identified 150 students as being homeless, and the numbers are on pace to reach 250 or 300 by the end of the school year, said Pegge Erkeneff, communications specialist for the district. Thirty-eight of those 150 are homeless youth on their own, while the rest are homeless but living with their parents, grandparents or another legal guardian.
“And the students we identify are students that are still going to school. I would say there are definitely more young people who are homeless (and not attending school) than our numbers indicate,” Erkeneff said.
The term homeless doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping on the streets. It could mean absolutely no housing, or it could mean substandard housing or “couch surfing” — crashing at the homes of various friends, relatives and acquaintances.
“It’s those that lack a stable, adequate and permanent — and that’s the key word, permanent — place to sleep at night. So they might be sleeping in a motel, a camper, a tent, couch surfing or living with friends or relatives,” she said.
Shawn said he and Krista have seen youths in all kinds of situations.
“We’ve only met a handful of actually street kids, and the majority of them actually choose to be — for whatever reason, their home life is a bad situation or some of them maybe just get mad at their parents and take off. Or maybe their home situation is OK and they’re just rebelling. You see all of that,” he said.
The goal of the district’s program is to help identified Students in Transition stay in school by helping the students and their families connect with resources in the community that can assist with food, shelter and transportation. The district program also can provide free school lunches for students, immediate enrollment and assistance in obtaining and completing necessary school enrollment-related paperwork, academic support and referrals to social services agencies in the community.
“It’s really difficult to continue to stay in school when you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from or where you’re going to be sleeping. That takes a lot of energy,” Erkeneff said.
Any student lacking adequate permanent housing, or anyone knowing of such a student, is encouraged to contact a school principal, secretary, nurse or school district offices in Soldotna or Homer. Referrals are confidential and privacy is honored, but at the same time it can be difficult to know when a student is in need unless someone reports it.
“I think one of the things here on the peninsula that makes this so poignant is it’s an invisible issue in many ways. People are shocked and surprised to learn how many students and young people we have that are homeless, because they don’t see them on the streets the same way that you would in a city or in a larger area. So it’s not something we really see that’s visible in our communities, and so therefore sometimes it’s unaddressed and it’s hidden and we need help finding these young people and helping keep them in school so they really have an opportunity,” Erkeneff said.
Erianna Beach, organizer of The Underground’s teen clothing closet, knows what that ambiguity is like.
“We were considered homeless, but it wasn’t like we were camping underneath a bridge. We chose to become homeless because of our situation — it was bad. It was like, ‘Do we stay in this bad situation?’ We had nowhere to go, we didn’t have the money for rent,” she said.
They were living in a garage with no bathroom, no kitchen, no running water, and the heat got shut off in the winter.
“We had electricity and four walls and a roof. We were considered homeless before we actually became homeless because we were living in substandard housing,” she said.
She chose to give up their garage accommodations and camp for over a month because the situation was not one in which she wanted to remain. Beach was on a waiting list for state-assisted low-income housing for about two months, and got into an apartment in June.
“Having been there myself, I know the frustration,” she said.
Been there, done that, now do something about it
Now that she’s got stable housing, Beach wants to help others who were in a similar situation. That’s the case for many of the volunteers of The Underground — the situations they seek to address are not hypothetical. They know from experience what these youth and young adults are going through.
Some come by that experience through their careers, such as Peterkin, Katzenberger and Beth Swaby, a teacher at the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility.
“I see a lot of youth that, if they had a different home environment, could avoid my environment. I’m not saying that where they come from is bad or wrong or anything like that, but if it was different they might avoid living off of my tax dollars. When the kids come into the youth facility I’m encouraging them to get their high school diploma, get their GED and pursue something and have long-term goals. I tell them if you’re flipping burgers at McDonald’s you’re not going to be able to pay the bills,” she said.
Others are motivated to help by their own experiences.
Melanie and Shane Noblin volunteered their business, Peninsula Printing on K B Drive, as a drop-off location for The Underground, and Melanie attended a recent organizational meeting to see how else they could help.
“My husband was out on the streets at 15, homeless. ‘Sorry, you’re on your own, we can’t afford to feed you anymore,’” Melanie Noblin said. “So when I talked to him about this we feel like we’ve been successful and blessed and lucky. We work really hard at our business. Seeing where he was at then and now, even though it took him several years to become a successful businessman, I feel like we could give back. It’s so minor for me to help when it could mean the difference between someone making it or someone not. We feel like we are in a position to give back, and if we can give a little bit, we want to do it.”
Krista, in particular, is driven by her life experiences. She had two kids by the time she was 17.
“And I had parents that were awesome, but I was a rebel, big time. I mean, I was 17 with two kids. I was still a kid and you want to be a kid so I did kid things — I partied. My parents didn’t know where I was half the time,” she said.
When she was 19 she met Shawn, and at age 20 they had their son, Jacob, and Krista was on the road to learning the maturity, responsibility, faith and life skills she needed to be a successful mom, wife, adult and, now, mentor to those youth who also are in chaotic situations.
“I think by time I met (Shawn) I was done. I met him and he helped me get to where I needed to be. So I have the life experience and the tools now — because I’ve been there — to help the kids, and I have a heart for it like you would not believe,” she said.
She and Shawn know from their experiences that it isn’t enough to hand out a coat here, a lunch there and think the underlying problems will be solved. Part of their effort is to address immediate needs, and the longer-term goal is to enable youth to change their own lives by encouraging education, offering mentoring and teaching life skills.
“You are a product of your environment, and they say it takes 30 days to form a new habit. Well, it takes longer to break habits,” Krista said.
“Instead of just giving and giving and giving and they’re not necessarily trying and it just keeps going and going and going. These are programs that can teach them how to take responsibility for their lives and give them the skills they need,” Shawn said.
But to do that, they need space to let their programs get established and grow. The Underground currently is seeking a space to house its office, its clothing closet and other donation programs, and to hold meetings and classes. The Schooleys are hoping to find someone willing to donate space, or supporters in the community willing to donate money to help cover the rent, utilities, gas and other costs of operating The Underground. So far, Buckets Sports Grill, Bare Skin Spa and SND Enterprises have committed to monthly financial contributions. A few more and The Underground would be able to get settled into a rental space.
Ideally, down the road, Krista is hoping to secure grants to establish a transitional living facility for homeless teens that would put a roof over their heads, a secure bed under their backs and knowledge in their heads.
“Our goal with that is to show them how to do coupons, how to budget their money, how to cook. You learn life skills, and I’m big on education, so it’s also making sure they get a diploma or GED,” Krista said. “Bringing in the transitional living center will teach them every aspect of how to survive as an adult.”
“And it’s not a six-month or a year intervention. It took them 15 years to get to where they are, so it is a lot of compassion and it takes a long time to get them to where they need to be,” Katzenberger said.
The Underground may not yet have the means, but it at least has the understanding of the problems facing area youth, and the determination to do something about it.
“I’ve been, there done that,” Krista said.
“It’s like the movie, ‘Pay It Forward,” Shawn said. “That’s something I’ve thought about for a long time. You get help then you help somebody and it starts a chain reaction.”
For more information on The Underground, to volunteer or to donate, contact Krista Schooley at 252-2081 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with the organization on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/907tribe.